Spoombung / New Music for Electric Bass
Thoofa / THOOFA1
Kev Hopper / bass guitar, musical saw, electronics, Ian Smith / trumpet, flugelhorn, Adam Brett / sampler, Charles Heyward / bells, John Butcher / saxophones , Rob Flint / assistance
The bass guitar has never had much of an avant garde following, really; even Laswell takes heavy cues from funkateers like Bootsy and Stanley Clarke, and if you want to be the closest thing there is to hot property on the avant garde scene then you pay homage to your jazz roots by biting the bullet and playing the double bass. Of course, there are interesting experimental bass guitarists out there, but they don’t tend to be high-profile; they tend to be team players whose identity is, to an extent, subsumed by a band. They don’t, in other words, tend to record solo albums like this one.
Regardless of how the lineup looks on paper, this is Hopper’s show. Ian Smith appears on two tracks, the others on one each, giving the bassman plenty of space to himself. Hopper mixes “live” with sampled playing, bass sounds with synths and non-bass samples, which gives this album the pleasant quality of being nigh-on impossible to analyse. His soundscapes seem densely layered, with the bass weaving in and out, appearing then submerging, flitting by disguised as an electronic blip, or appearing in a sample-haze mirage. It sounds as much like a contemporary ambient album as a solo bass workout, and there’s no problem with that.
Proceedings begin with an airy six-minuter, the longest on the disk, which seems to be feeling out the space which the rest of the album will occupy, as if sending sporadic sonar messages to the bottom of some ocean trench. After this, Hopper’s interest in African drumming takes over and we are, for the remainder of the album, in mainly rhythmic waters, propulsive and sometimes ametrical but throbbing ever forward. Containing, indeed, not a small quantity of funk.
It’s time to talk about the spoombung now. This is a word — a deliciously onomatopoeic word at that — invented by Hopper to describe what is essentially a practice of preparation familiar to players of all stringed instruments, attaching crocodile clips and safety pins to the strings, or more brutally shoving lengths of wood or metal between or beneath them and so on. What Hopper brings into the equation, however, is a technical mastery of specifically bass-guitar-oriented techniques of slapping and popping the strings, using both hands percussively to create wonderfully bouncy cross-rhythms. The fact that Hopper’s playing is so rooted in conventional bass technique, yet sounds so different, makes this more than just another prepared-strings exercise. And then watch out for the “assisted spoombungs”, in which either Flint or Carter alter the preparations while Hopper plays, at some times resulting in gently shifting timbres, and at others, as on the self-explanatory “Croclipslipped”, causing unpredictable mayhem.
This is a quiet, unassuming record which it is easy to miss the point of first time around. Hopper doesn’t bludgeon the listener with technique or with new and exciting noises; he gently weaves a pattern which, like West African drumming, draws the listener in and plays out slow-moving, thoughtful complexities. Not that this is cerebral music; it’s almost all about groove and about texture, which is why this listener was reminded of ambient electronica; it could almost have come out on Ninja Tune except that guys like Butcher crop up and the whole thing has a slightly-too-dark texture. Nonetheless, a cracking summer record from an eccentric inventor of new ways to make experimental music. Richard Cochrane